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“It’s Not Just Murfreesboro’s Team, It’s Middle’s Team” – New MTSU Football Coach Derek Mason Talks Goals For The Blue Raiders

Noah Maddox
Posted 6/27/24

First-year Head Coach Derek Mason sits down with Noah Maddox to discuss his goals for the program with the start of fall practice about one month away.

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“It’s Not Just Murfreesboro’s Team, It’s Middle’s Team” – New MTSU Football Coach Derek Mason Talks Goals For The Blue Raiders


When Derek Mason was introduced as the new MTSU Head Football Coach back in early December, he talked about the “good bones” that the Blue Raiders’ football program already has in place.

  Now, Mason is looking forward to building upon the sturdy foundation that former head coach, Rick Stockstill, left behind after his 18-year tenure that saw MTSU win a share of a Sun Belt title and reach a bowl game 10 times, with four bowl wins. Coupled with on-field success, the 19th head football coach in MTSU history understands that not only is on-field success important, but so is relating to the area and community around the university as a whole.

“It’s not just Murfreesboro’s team, it’s Middle’s team, and when I say middle I'm talking about Middle Tennessee,” Mason said. “I’m talking about going up from Springfield all the way down to Bell Buckle. At the end of the day, people in Middle Tennessee are very prideful with how they see things, and the more time I spend down here, this place resonates with me because I get it. It’s hard working folks who love what they do, love sports, and they just want to see hometown heroes and some of their own have an opportunity to go do some successful things, and that’s pretty cool.”

Of course, this process is not one that happens overnight, but one that takes time and cultivation not only in the community with the average fan, but in relationships with high school coaches and MTSU alumni. 

Mason played at and graduated from a smaller school in Northern Arizona as a cornerback. Walking into his office, an NAU helmet is actually one of the first things you notice, sitting on a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf surrounded by not just books but also a couple other helmets. One of them, a throwback Minnesota Vikings helmet representing his time as their assistant DB coach, catches your eye immediately, and the realization that he has coached at almost all levels of football begins to sink in. Because of his roots and almost 30 years of coaching experience, he recognizes the hard work and extra effort necessary to build a successful program at a Group-of-Five-type level. 

However, he doesn’t exactly have to start from scratch. From the moment we started speaking, it was very apparent that he has immense respect for not just Coach Stockstill as a person, but as a football coach. He even called the MTSU football program “the house that Stock built” in that aforementioned introductory press conference, but with a change in regime usually comes with a style shift. 

“Coach Stock did a great job with the air raid, but we just want to be who we are, and that’s a physical football team that is capable of winning in a bunch of different ways,” Mason humbly expressed. “We can win on defense, and I think we can win up front offensively. I think we can win throwing and running, so it’ll be fun to see what this team does.”

“I want this team to really reflect what this community is so this community gets behind it.”

It’s usually easy to fill seats with a winning product, but if that product mirrors the people and fans in and around the area, the decision to keep coming back both in the hard times and the great times gets a little easier each time. That’s why so many small high school teams tend to have such ferocious fan support from their local communities even when success in terms of the wins and losses might waver. 

That not only applies to small-town high schools, but college towns as well all across the country. At the Blue Raider Blitz event in Shelbyville a few weeks ago, Mason likened the potential crowd environment and fan support to frenzied places like Appalachian State and Boise State, two small-town universities with rowdy and passionate students and fan bases that create intimidating home environments for visiting teams. The key to that is, in part, the fact that those programs represent the surrounding area and community as well. They aren’t solely successful on the field, they’re also hard-working and blue collar in their approach and do things the right way. 

So far, the annual Blue-White game has been the only look fans have had of Mason's Blue Raiders.
So far, the annual Blue-White game has been the only look fans have had of Mason's Blue Raiders.

Luckily for Mason and MTSU, he is all about putting in the work necessary, and believes his players buying in to put in the work both on and off the field is essential. 

“Everytime you step into a locker room there is a price, and the price tag is the work that has got to be done in order for you to stay. Sustainable work gives you an opportunity to have great days,” he said. “Right now I’ve got a good football team, and I like that we have been able to look at our borders and say ‘who are we?’ and ‘who do we wanna be here at MTSU?’.”

Of course, in terms of recruiting, Mason already knows the area well from his seven seasons as the head coach at Vanderbilt from 2014-2020, and that was one of the bigger reasons that the AD, Chris Massaro, ended up hiring him. In his time at Vanderbilt, the relationships with local high schools and coaches that Mason was able to build through football camps and recruiting will help him now as the leader of the Blue Raiders.

“I tried to give as much attention to coaches and programs as I could,” he said. “Vanderbilt was a private institution, and so the academic standards and rigor were much different. It didn’t allow me to recruit as many in-state athletes as I’d like, but I think what it gave me…when people came to my camps, I thought our camps were always really good. We weren’t about having big numbers, and we weren’t about making money. We were about coaching and we were about development, and so I think that’s what started to happen.”

“People started to realize that this dude has a tough edge about him, he cares about people, and I tried to give, to the best of our ability in our program, I wanted to make sure that people felt like they were valued,” he continued. “I wanted to make high school coaches feel like they were valued. Just because we couldn’t take your players doesn't mean we wouldn’t give you time and that we wouldn’t invite you to our campus or that we wouldn’t give you access to the resources that we had in terms of our schemes and what it looked like.”

Mason also stressed the importance of getting all the student-athletes to graduate and grow as men off the field. 

“I pride myself on graduating our student-athletes. I mean I think it’s my job to give a better product back to the parents than what they drop off, and I think that’s uber-important to the parents because, having two children myself, they’re my most coveted and precious commodity,” he said. “So me personally, I think it was just the genuine respect from the high school coaches because they feel like if I took one of their student-athletes, they were going to be developed, and I was going to do the best job that I could within our program and within our system that they were going to make it.”

He went on to talk about the three big principles that people took from his time at the helm of the Commodores: He was going to be tough, he was going to care about people, and everyone was going to have a chance to have a great experience. 

No other football program in the state has to deal with the same level of academic standards that Vanderbilt does, and this is a pretty big reason as to why it’s so tough to win in Nashville. Despite all these obstacles, Mason was able to achieve bowl eligibility twice in his time with the Commodores. 

Perhaps the biggest difference between now and the last time Mason was a head coach is the introduction of NIL across the college sports landscape that took place in 2021. As every coach does, he has his own take on what NIL actually is and what it should be used for.

“I've always been a proponent of NIL, like I don't believe a student-athlete should struggle. I believe in it, but I believe it is not for everybody, and I think that’s the misnomer. Right now, NIL is not about the 99%, it’s really about the 1%.  Now, there are other monies available, and I think if a young man can get paid for his name, image, and likeness, and not for his play, because it’s not pay-for-play, it’s name image, and likeness, which means you’ve built a brand. You’ve built a brand by how you play, who you are, by what you do, how you carry yourself, like all these things matter, and I think that is where the lines have sort of gotten blurred a bit. Here at MTSU, we talk about building your brand, that's who you are, what you do, and how you go about your business. It’s hard for me to find an NIL deal for you if you’re not a good person, you don’t do the right things, and if you’re constantly finding yourself in the arms of mischief,” Mason explained in detail. 

“NIL is about people who do good things, people who understand how to serve their community, who understand that you work hard and you gain opportunities through building your network because your network helps determine your net worth.”

Mason’s fear is that education is starting to become devalued, and he hopes to “keep the main thing the main thing.” However, he also recognizes that NIL is what it is right now, and he’s not fighting against it in the same way other coaches might be across the country. 

“If you play well, and maybe a big school wants to offer you a big NIL deal, then go take it. I’m that coach, but you do that if that’s truly you,” he continued, “I think there are a lot of different ways to get to that endgame, and I believe that MTSU will be one of the best ways to do it. In this day and age you also have to be ready for free agency when free agency comes. I tell our players that this is a developmental program, so spend time developing, and if you develop well enough, the payday will come.”

That “payday” could come from anywhere, whether it’s NIL deals at MTSU, an NFL contract, or in a (hopefully) last case scenario and as he has expressed already, even at another school. MT alum and former NFL All-Pro Safety Kevin Byard, formerly of the Tennessee Titans, is just one of many examples. 

Byard of course played under longtime head coach, Rick Stockstill, and Mason understands what “Coach Stock,” as he is affectionately known, meant to this program. This is one of the many reasons why he wants to achieve something that has not been done in MTSU football history – win a CUSA Championship – while also seeking to accomplish other important goals to take the program to new heights.

“I’ve given Coach Stock a lot of credit for the things he has done. My goals look like the goals that I have set for myself. I want to win a conference championship, and I want to win it sooner than later. Why settle for second when first is available? That’s the mindset everyday,” he said. “The climb is where I'm at right now. We aren't at the pinnacle, and when you’re on the climb, you’ve got your eyes down, your head up, and all you’re doing is chopping wood. To me, I know and understand, I want to win and graduate players at a high rate, and our goal is to win a Conference USA Championship and win a bowl game with class, integrity, and academic excellence.” 

“If we can do that, that puts us amongst the great teams in MTSU Football history.”

MTSU has the capability to have some of the best resources in the entire conference, but part of that success relies upon alumni and donors to get behind the football program that Mason is trying to build. Expectations for first-year coaches are always tough to nail down because there is always so much work that must be done to implement new systems and schemes, but with the right team and collection of players, anything is possible. 

Mason is seeking to accomplish these things through something he calls the “Blue Collar Project.” The Blue Collar Project has a saying – “Boro Built, Middle Made” – and he is optimistic about the work his team is putting in this offseason both on and off the field as renovations are happening all around them. This includes a social media post from a couple months ago during Mason’s first few months on the job that showed the entire team working together to build a Nutrition Station, something that required everyone to work together.

“To me, the Blue Collar Project gives us a chance to find connection, meaning, purpose, and opportunities to connect. To me, that’s what the nutrition station was, it was an opportunity for guys who wanted something to figure out a way to do it. We did it, and we did it together,” he said. “Same thing with our locker room. Our locker room is old, I’m good with that. Everything doesn’t have to be new. We’re building a new building over there, and that’s the price of progress, but our seniors will never see that new building, so what do you think matters to them? The new building that they’ll never see, or the building that they’re in that gets taken care of everyday because guys clean it, take care of it, pick it up, and value it just as much as they’re going to value the new building. We have opportunities in and around our space to create value and experiences. Attitude affects outcome.”

He also went on to explain the meaning of “Boro Built, Middle Made,” saying that “you were refined here in Murfreesboro, but you were Middle made.” 

“Sometimes in life you don’t have to depend on other people, but in the spaces we are in, to succeed, you can’t get it done by yourself,” Mason concluded.

He’s right, of course, because football is the ultimate team sport. However, as important as the 11 players out on the field at any given time are, the fans and home crowds play a massive role in a team’s success as well, which is why Mason hopes that the community will rally behind the Blue Raiders in the fall.

Derek Mason, Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders,